Eastern Kentucky is one of the most accidentally beautiful places I have ever been. Being there, one feels as though God knocked over his cereal box one morning and Kentucky spilled out. The place is a jumble and a tangle, off-kilter and slightly askew: a world whose axis is tilted a few degrees further than that of the one to which we are accustomed. The land is ravaged by gorges and pock-marked with hollers; mountains make their way across it with jagged, sideways movements, like crabs. The sky seems to be warped in reflection of the terrain, and while I was there I had the distinct sense that one of my legs was longer than the other, which meant that I spent a lot of time leaning against crooked timbers to gain my equilibrium. If I were a Creationist, I would have to argue that eastern Kentucky is evidence not for Intelligent but Cockeyed Design. God had a hangover when He made this place.
The human element expresses a dialectic between this spilled and crushed landscape and the crushing poverty of its inhabitants. (The county I visited has the highest child poverty rate in the nation—40 percent—which means the 5,000 inhabitants of said county are consigned to a nightmare Thoreau never imagined: here men live their lives not in quiet desperation but amidst a desperate quiet.) Still, these are hard men whose families have been on the land for five and six generations; they will not submit to fate, and they keep their land tidy and well-ordered, pulling corn in neat rows from the soil with the same commitment it would take you or I to quarry granite from a mountainside with a pick and a shovel.
This dialectic between land and human life achieved its material synthesis, in my eyes, in a series of barns I passed on Route 191, between Grassy Creek and Campton. Still functioning, they had become torqued and twisted with age and environmental punishment, their metal roofs sliding off into the dirt like ice cream slipping from a cone in the sun. Their walls had shifted without giving way, and structures that had once been square had gone feral, turning rhomboid and parallelogram. Most were engaged in an agon with a riotous vine that held them in a death grip while waiting for a nearby tree to drop a limb and deliver the coup-de-grace.
My curiosity was piqued at first, but by the sixth of these barns my aesthetic sensibility was fully aroused and I began naming them as I passed: “Entropy: 1, 2 and 3.” “Time’s Arrow.” Squaring the Circle.” “Elvis Has Left the Building.” “A Practical Application of Non-Euclidean Geometry.” “In Advance of a Broken Neck.” “Waiting for Damocles.” “Unintentional Consequence.”
It was as though I had tumbled down a rabbit-hole to find myself in a world that was the result of a collaboration between Marcel Duchamp and Robert Smithson. These barns were Found Installations, pure and simple. In reality, of course, they were the result of a collaboration between an extreme environment and extreme poverty; but if one makes the effort to shear off one’s social conscience and experience them as accidental art objects, they are beautiful, haunting and tragic.
When Duchamp went to an International Industrial Exposition in the early part of the 20th century, he is said to have declared to his companions while standing before an airplane propeller that painting was dead. Pointing at it, he asked them, “Could anyone make a thing so perfect by hand?” Looking at these barns in Kentucky, I found myself asking a similar question: Could any intent produce these objects? A dainty little work in a precious Chelsea gallery is like a bit of Art Kitsch in comparison, dry and dessicated and dreadfully weak. Duchamp would have loved these barns; but as he knew, being an artist has less to do with what one manufactures than with how one sees.